The mad chase after Bt brinjal

Updated on: Dec 11, 2014
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GM crops increase toxicity in the human body and will ring the end of delicious indigenous varieties

In 2009, responding to large-scale opposition to Bt brinjal’s introduction in India, former environment minister Jairam Ramesh placed an indefinite moratorium on its further field testing. This was done after discussions with scientists, both pro and anti-GM crops, activists and farmers across the country.

His successor, Jayanthi Natarajan, shared the same opinion; it was a view not shared by Sharad Pawar, agriculture minister in UPA-II, and the PMO’s office. She was eased out of office and her successor Veerappa Moily lost no time in giving the green signal not just to Bt brinjal but the entire spectrum of GM crops for field testing. The BJP, in the opposition then, had opposed the move at the time but now, in government, it has given permission to field test both Bt brinjal and Bt mustard.

In 2006, responding to a PIL in the Supreme Court on GM crops, the then Chief Justice of India YK Sabharwal had observed that the entire question should be examined by scientists.

An independent expert committee was constituted consisting of leading agronomists, soil scientists, plant physiologists, nutritionists, economists, social activists and farmers’ representatives, to specifically examine the field data pertaining to Bt brinjal provided by an Indian seed company, a subsidiary of a US-based agri-business behemoth.

Noting that the seed company had blatantly violated many safety protocols prescribed by the Department of Biotechnology, the committee submitted its report to the Supreme Court, recommending stoppage of further field testing, until foolproof safety protocols were put in place.

Last year, the Supreme Court-appointed Technical Expert Committee (TEC) ordered that no field testing of GM crops be carried out until strong safety provisions were in place. A single member of TEC, a former Director General of ICAR, dissented, and a clear “conflict of interest” has been voiced by members of the TEC, including many scientists opposed to GM crops.

The Mexican example

Two crucial facts have to be clearly understood. Brinjal is a food crop and any tampering with its genetic make up must not be attempted, unless and until a totally foolproof safety protocol is in place.

Unlike Bt cotton, where mishandling of the RNA-mediated genetic change could lead to Bt toxin percolating into human gut, through milk from cows fed with cotton cake obtained from Bt cotton, brinjal is a food crop of direct consumption. Any mishandling can lead to unforeseen consequences. Also, brinjal has its origin in the Indian subcontinent, and it is mandatory that no genetic manipulation of a crop be attempted in its geographic place of origin.

Both these core stipulations have been violated in the production of Bt brinjal.

It would be educative to take the example of Mexico. Despite tremendous pressure to introduce GM maize in Mexico, this small country has successfully resisted because the Andean region in Mexico is the place of origin of maize. New Delhi is blatantly violating this basic norm in the case of Bt brinjal.

Bangladesh released Bt brinjal on October 30, 2013. The Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) had endorsed the crop, despite opposition from farmers and environmental lawyers in Dhaka.

While a few farmers reported fairly good yields, many others said entire Bt brinjal fields had wilted ahead of time, akin to what happened with Bt cotton in India. Opposition is gathering storm, with the Bangladesh Paribesh Andolanat the forefront.

Many farmers have reported that Bt brinjal still needs insecticidal sprays to contain FSB, an observation made in India about Bt cotton in containing the dreaded American boll worm. Despite the government’s push to Bt brinjal, the debate over South Asia’s first commercially released genetically modified food crop is unlikely to die down any time soon.

Need for vigilance

India has to be very vigilant on two counts. First it must seal illegal cross-border trade in Bt brinjal seeds. When the government has failed to effectively seal the migration of illegal Bangladeshi refugees into West Bengal, sealing the border against movement of Bt brinjal seeds is wishful thinking.

The larger question is: Does India want to risk its large collection of native brinjal varieties to pollen contamination from Bt brinjal, and make everything uniform?

We have an array of brinjal, from the delicious and eye-catching gulle badnekai (round brinjal) of Karnataka to the slender kattirikkai of Tamil Nadu, both incomparable. Whether served as kattirikkai sambar or baingan ka bharta , brinjal is our national vegetable and any genetic tampering must be done only with extreme care. Incompetent handling of the messenger RNA-induced changes in the brinjal cell could unwittingly let the Bt toxin into the human gut. Do you want that?

The writer is a senior fellow of The Humboldt Foundation

Published on December 11, 2014

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